Fighting Child Abuse
By Trish Choate
World of light. World of dark.
A man moves among the dark of his own free will.
He walks a path through spiky thorns tipped with innocent blood, thickets of twisted soul killers and bottomless pools of babies' tears.
Light flashes here and there, perhaps, but he knows he'll never walk in it for good, never feel its warmth always and never be able to let down his guard.
He's Andrew Vachss, a crime-fiction writer, attorney and fierce child advocate. He fights the flood of dark—child abuse—any way he can.
And he's not giving up.
"You've got to understand," Vachss said in a telephone interview. "I'm swimming at the horizon. I'm never going to get there. Children are not going to be safe in my time."
His latest assault on child abuse is "Dead and Gone," a Burke novel that divides its time between New York City and Oregon—like he does.
The 57-year-old Vachss—rhymes with "ax"—writes crime-fiction books that he calls "Trojan horses." And he hammers child abusers in court as an attorney who only represents children. He also campaigns for federal legislation such as the Child Abuse Reform and Enforcement Act of 1999.
It's yet to make it through Congress, but if it does, it will force states to pay if their laws harbor a loophole that can allow offenders to get off easy—if they've committed incest.
Vachss is not likely to get lost in a crowd. A black eye patch makes him look more like a pirate than a man who helps children. It shields an eye damaged in a childhood tangle with a chain-wielding assailant.
But even without the patch, it's hard to imagine Vachss being overlooked. Sure-footed in his crusade against child abuse, he makes a lot of noise—good noise—with his books. And he may be from New York, but he knows how to talk to a Texan.
"Have you ever eaten a steak with no fat?" he said in a muscular New York accent that kicked some consonants out on their cans.
Vachss knows that most people won't touch a dry tome on the evils of child sexual abuse. So he cranks up the excitement by making his books steamy and interesting. They also bubble with the violence of the street. But along with that excitement . . . some substance.
"What I've done is I've marbled the message in the book," he said. "You cannot read my books without getting my message."
Words are obviously important to Vachss.
For instance, he finds the term "child abuse" too generic. He reasons that someone may have been reared with an over-enthusiastic strap and figure he turned out OK. So when he's rearing his kids, he wields the strap the same way. That person needs education.
But at the other end of the spectrum lies fearsome darkness.
"If you're talking about predatory pedophiles, they're a different breed entirely," he said.
Oh yeah, he doesn't like the word "pedophile," either. In his view, the language surrounding child-sex crimes has been watered down—and distorted. Some pedophiles actually talk about "intergenerational love"—another phrase that sparks Vachss' ire.
"It's no more love than my particular love of barbecue," he said. "I don't much care for the cow."
Words might be important, but, at the same time, there's something probably more crucial to Vachss: "Behavior is truth."
"To me, a person is what they do," Vachss said. "I'm in a business where everybody's a child advocate. It's just words. It's conduct that concerns me."
Election time is a perfect time to discuss, "Behavior is truth," he said.
A presidential candidate, for instance, might say he loves children and protects them. So Vachss eyeballs the candidate's home state to see how children are treated. Vachss wasn't impressed with either presidential candidate, Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore.
"When it comes to the protection of children, neither one can show me a record that gets my support," he said. "We have two hollow rhetoricians on these issues."
Indeed, Vachss said he's hard-pressed to name any politician who puts children first. They seem to come last in our society because they don't vote.
"And the people who care about children are always handicapped because they care about everything," he said.
Vachss wishes they could be as single-minded as, for example, National Rifle Association members. They make their stance plain: Put guns first, and we'll vote accordingly. If the candidate passes the test, the vote is his.
"But if you fail that test on this one narrow issue, I don't care if you're an opponent of Satan, I'm going to vote for Satan," he said, describing NRA tactics.
Vachss is similarly single-minded about child abuse—and has been for decades. His chosen path has influenced his entire life. To ward off trouble from pedophiles—who don't like him much—he conceals his home base and can't be reached directly through e-mail. Reportedly, he also keeps big dogs for protection and company—a rather Texan thing to do.
But he doesn't get tired, and he won't lay down his weapons.
"I understand I have to go the distance, and then I won't have the prize in the end," Vachss said. "I try to take my behavior from my pit bulls. They don't give up, and I don't either."
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